Review: Young Contemporaries 2019
The Young Contemporaries 2019 exhibition at the Rele Gallery in Onikan, Lagos features a total of 36 characteristically two-dimensional but materially diverse works, ranging from acrylics, watercolours and oil by Tonia Nneji, Osaze Amadsun, Abraham Ogunlende and Fidelis Joseph, to the unconventional sand paintings of Osaru Obaseki and the digital photographs of Stephen Tayo.
According to the gallery, the exhibition now in its fourth edition, is a critical and engaging platform for a new generation of emerging artistic talent in Nigeria and provides an environment for young artists to be part of the evolving discourse on cutting-edge artistic practice.
Entering into the gallery, the viewer is confronted with the historical, the mythological, and the divine. First is a series by Osaze Amadasun titled ‘Once Upon a Kingdom’. This is a collection of four paintings depicting key events during the rule of Oba Esigie (1504-1550), the Benin monarch, climaxing in a tribute to his mother, Queen Idia. The works draw on 16th-century stories from the Benin kingdom which have been immortalised in the bronze works of the Benin bronze casters and in anthropological data.
What is particularly striking about Amadasun’s work is not only its aesthetic qualities, but also in the intensity, historical significance, and linear narrative of the images. ‘Once Upon a Kingdom’ is conceived as a sequenced re-imagining of history using metaphors and symbolic imagery. It draws from oral tradition and documented historical texts, weaving a vivid narrative on themes ranging from bravery and strength to fate and compromise.
Stephen Tayo’s ‘Ibeji’ series is a discourse on duality, both psychologically and in its physicality. Featuring 11 intimate photographs of identical twins of different age groups and gender, it is closely arranged in an irregular grid pattern on the opposite wall from the main entrance. In this work, Tayo gives texture and nuance to the concept of “ibeji.” Translating as “‘twins” in English, “ibeji” is the name of a god representing twin children in the indigenous religion of the Yoruba people. It is also used to refer to twin children. The photographs explore the relationship between two distinct and diverse individuals, depicting the subjects in relatively personal spaces, which hint at a singularity of being despite the profound individuality of the models.
The figures in the photographs are shown relative to one another, with some adopting classical “Nigerian” poses reminiscent of a commercial photographic aesthetic from the 1960s. This brings to mind work done by celebrated Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. The series is consistent with earlier bodies of work in which the artist explores the everyday life and fashion of the average Nigerian to create intimate pieces that oscillate between the spontaneity of street photography and the deliberateness of fashion editorials.
Where Stephen Tayo’s photographs are of everyday encounters with people, Tonia Nneji’s series titled Six Days in Holding is distinctly introspective. Nneji showcases six works in a markedly different style from her earlier paintings. Still exploring the use of vibrant colours and the female body as a muse, her canvases are now populated with lone female figures devoid of facial features and delineated with flattened planes in a characteristically pop style. Her figures are draped with elaborate and intricately detailed “African” fabrics. Drawing from her early battle with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age, Nneji created the series as a tribute to her mother, who sold her wrappers—valuable objects of joy, identity, and pride among Igbo women—to cover medical expenses.
The series is also a representation of six days of the artist’s menstrual cycle in all its irregularities and complexities. A particularly striking piece is Day III (Abada) (2018), which shows the frontal view of a female figure devoid of facial features and painted in red. The figure has a fabric wrapped around the top of her head with one end extending down to the right shoulder forming an arc before resting on the left shoulder. The scarf is painted in earthy tones of yellow and brown with dark undulating lines crisscrossing the length of the fabric. Orange squares dot the surface of the fabric. As suggested by the title, the fabric is an abada, an originally Dutch-produced fabric that is now commonly thought as African. It represents one of the many wrappers sold by the artist’s mother, imbuing it with symbolic qualities of love and sacrifice.
The faceless figures could be Nneji’s way of standing in solidarity with millions of women around the world who go through various health issues that are peculiar to women. It could also be read as a reference to the marginalisation and silencing of women in contemporary society. The figure is, however, far from silent, as it stares at the imaginary witness and prospective beholder with suggested intimacy mixed with defiance.
In stark contrast to Nneji’s melancholy and introspection is the fun, light-hearted, borderline kitschy world of A Wonderful Space by Abraham Ogunlende. His minimalist canvases are populated with polka dots and figures in colourful attire set against plain backgrounds. Colourfully wrapped candy pieces are displayed on two pedestals covered in polka dots, and viewers are encouraged to help themselves to some. While the works themselves are not particularly impressive, with the artist referring to them as “a playful body of work,” they visually shock the viewer by inviting them, albeit temporarily into a space, a safe and ideal world—a world of children, brightly coloured fruits, and candy.
Osaru Obaseki’s combination of acrylic and sand in her series ‘Red Earth is Blooming’ examines the interrelationship between humans and the environment, and the way the environment affects the human mind and personality. In What Meets the Eye (2018), Obaseki replaces the heads of the three figures in the paintings with flowers—a motif that appears in the remaining works. One figure is shown with a fist clenched and raised, another has her palm resting underneath where a chin would have been, and the third has one hand raised, the thumb and index finger forming a circle around an eye, with the remaining fingers raised. The figures are close together, almost conspiring, facing the viewer as if about to divulge a secret, to a patient enough viewer. Obaseki’s experimentation with different types of sand gives a distinct textural quality to her work, inviting the viewer to not just look but touch.
Joseph Fidelis’s abstract paintings in ‘Spirit of Salkur’ are an exploration of the metaphysical world of spirits and their transformative interactions with the human body. Characterised by bright colours and flowing continuous lines and shapes, it is conceived as an imaginative depiction of the transformative process of the Salkur spirit—a supernatural being associated with the Marghi ethnic group of Adamawa State in Nigeria. The spirit is known for protecting the land and the people, but the tradition is on the brink of extinction because of insurgency and modernisation. The series is an attempt by the artist to document and immortalise this tradition.
With Young Contemporaries, the organisers Rele Gallery have set for themselves a daunting task in unearthing exceptional voices from Nigeria’s glut of artistic talent. They are applauded for their sustained effort and dedication in this direction over the years. However, a more distinct curatorial thrust and accompanying critical text is useful in not only recording the gains of the exhibition and serving as archival material but also in contextualising it beyond the individual works on display. In subsequent editions, one would also hope for a diversification of media away from the present 2-dimensional and traditional engagement, to an exploration of sculpture, installation and the more unconventional.
With these in place, Rele Gallery will continue well in its vital contribution to contemporary art practice in Nigeria.
The exhibition runs till March 3, 2019.